Grad Student Spotlight: Amanda Balboni
Although her doctorate from the Program in Experimental and Molecular Medicine (PEMM) is newly minted, Dr. Amanda Balboni, better known as Mandy to the Dartmouth community, has been involved in cancer research and fundraisers for the American Cancer Society (ACS) for nearly a decade.
A native of Braintree, Massachusetts, Balboni coordinated the ACS Relay for Life event during high school for four years. Relay for Life is a community based 24-hour event that raises funds to support ACS-funded research for multiple types of cancer, provides lodging for patients undergoing treatment, and aids in survivor recovery. “Talking to [cancer] survivors inspired me,” says Balboni; it also motivated her to study biology at Boston College and ultimately pursue a PhD in cancer biology.
After graduating from Boston College in 2009, Balboni began her doctoral studies in PEMM at Dartmouth. She was especially attracted to the program due to its focus on disease-based research and translational medicine. Balboni joined the laboratory of Professor James DiRenzo in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the Geisel School of Medicine. The DiRenzo lab studies the genetic changes that epithelial cells (cells in the tissue that lines body surface and cavities) undergo as they become specialized within human tissues.
Stratified epithelial cells undergo natural cycles of growth and death: first proliferating and acquiring a physiological function, undergoing programmed cell death after maturation, and then undergoing regeneration by basal progenitor cells. Progenitor cells are capable of differentiating into a specific type of cell much like stem cells. Understanding the regulation of this dynamic cycle is important because these cycles can be used to predict breast cancer risk when applied to mammary gland cells in breast tissue.
The regulatory cycle of proliferation, cellular determination, and death is complex, but one protein has been shown to be particularly impactful: Delta N-p63 (p63). Balboni’s thesis work has illuminated a novel signaling pathway involved in tumor formation caused by p63. In an article published in Cancer Research last year, Balboni and colleagues showed that p63 activity resulted in higher levels of bone morphogenic protein (BMP) expression, which is common in breast cancers. BMPs are a group of cell signaling proteins that are pivotal in tissue development in the body. They also found that inhibition of BMP signaling with a drug had tumor suppressive properties. In a follow-up to this work, Balboni’s second first-author article focuses on the potential therapeutic aspects of BMP inhibitors; it has been submitted for publication to Molecular Cancer Research.
Based on her passion for discovering potential therapies for cancer patients and the desire to understand cancer biology more generally, Balboni is beginning a postdoctoral fellowship at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Broad Institute in Boston in the laboratory of Dr. Kim Stegmaier. In the Stegmaier lab, Balboni will be utilizing genomic and proteomic approaches to identify pathways that regulate tumor formation that are specific to childhood cancers like leukemia and Ewing sarcoma, as well as compounds that could be used to inhibit them. “I can’t wait to start… I’ve always wanted a career in translational science and here I have the opportunity to help to develop drugs that have been shown to be effective based on academic research.”
During her graduate career, Balboni has been very involved in the broader Dartmouth and Upper Valley communities. She remains a member of the American Association for Cancer Research and has participated in the annual Upper Valley Relay for Life events. Balboni has also served as a student representative to the Dartmouth Graduate Student Council (GSC) for PEMM and as a student representative to the Cancer Biology and Molecular Therapeutics Program. Balboni was elected as the GSC secretary for 2012-2013, and, as secretary, she sponsored social events and helped to award travel grants to graduate student researchers. She has also written articles for the Graduate Forum. Finally, Balboni has coordinated community dinners for families at the Upper Valley Haven.
We thank Balboni for her involvement in the Dartmouth community, and wish her the best in her new position!
by Angelyca Jackson